Jan Kopecký is on his way to extending his record run of Barum Rally Zlín victories, with a seventh victory in a row in sight after key rivals hit trouble.
Saturday morning featured mixed weather conditions and made tire selection a headache, with Kopecký initially regretting taking medium-compound slicks in the morning as he dropped to fifth.
But Držková, the third stage, proved to be the deciding factor on the first day, as newly crowned European Rally Champion Efrén Llarena went off the road and crashed into a tree, triggering a red flag.
Kopecký was simply unstoppable on the wet and slippery broken asphalt, winning the stage by 18.4 seconds from Filip Mareš to take a lead he’d spend the rest of Saturday making even bigger.
Mareš, who is Kopecký’s chief rival in the Czech national championship this year, initially looked to be his nearest rival for the rally win too.
But he went off twice within a minute on the first pass of Semetín; Mareš’ first slide wide was repeated by another a few corners later, in the latter case clipping a rock and damaging his Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo. Those offs initially dropped him to seventh.
That left Erik Cais and Adam Březík in chase mode but the chasing pack was soon thinned out, as Březík’s car ground to a halt on the afternoon pass of Brezová because of a disconnected turbo pipe.
While Březík was able to fix the pipe mid-stage, it had cost him six minutes – plus a few extra seconds in the latter part of the stage as he caught up with Norbert Herczig’s MRF Fabia after restarting. Either way, a first ERC podium was gone.
Cais remains second behind Kopecký, 34.6s off the top spot and looking unlikely to get a chance to make amends for crashing out of the lead on the final stage last year.
He’ll have to keep his eyes on the time gap behind rather than ahead, as Mareš mounted a comeback in the afternoon after his morning of spins and offs.
Mareš is 13.6s behind Cais after spending the afternoon charging back towards the podium places, as he zeroed in on Dominik Stříteský and Miklós Csomós.
Csomós had briefly led the rally after stage two, taking advantage of running an hour behind the leaders to have a drier road than his rivals. As the day wore on he dropped to fourth, then retired on Saturday’s penultimate stage while battling Stříteský and Mareš for third.
Stříteský was just able to hold off Mareš for the final podium place but has only 1.6s in hand heading to Sunday. And although Stříteský is still clinging onto third, he won’t score any ERC points thanks to a tire quirk where, as a Hankook runner along with Csomós, he isn’t permitted to register for points or as a priority crew.
Any hopes that ERC regulars would be able to take on the Czech locals in Zlín were dashed not only by Llarena’s earlier crash but also Simon Wagner being caught out by the same test.
Wagner looked like a strong contender for victory, going second-fastest on the qualifying stage and then running in the podium places earlier on.
But an overshoot early on the wet morning pass of Držková spun him into a haybale, costing him over half a minute as a three-point turn was needed to get going once more.
Mareš caught and passed Wagner during the afternoon loop but the reigning Austrian champion is unlikely to fall any further, as Herczig is a full two minutes behind him in sixth.
Simone Campedelli and Alberto Battistolli both expressed a lack of confidence on Zlín’s low-grip asphalt and find themselves battling over seventh, with Campedelli nicking the place on the final stage of the day.
Tom Kristensson and Ken Torn were another foreign pairing caught out by Barum’s highly specialist nature. Kristensson overshot a right-hander and dumped his Hyundai i20 R5 into some foliage, breaking an upright and retiring on the spot.
Torn meanwhile went off at the exact same corner as Mareš had on Semetín, then had something on the rear of his car break after going over a jump moments after resuming.
A subsequent snap slide towards the edge of the road put his Ford Fiesta Rally2 into a rollover, after which he retired.
As it transpired the crash made little difference, as Torn later revealed his car was suffering a low voltage problem and an alternator fault would likely have forced him to retire regardless.